Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversities Therapist, Katie Evans, writes about celebrating visibility to mark LGBT+ History Month.
February is LGBT+ History Month, a time to celebrate the achievements of those within the communities, but also to reflect on the work still to be done. 2023 marks 20 years since Section 28 was repealed. This was the law that banned “promotion of homosexuality” in the UK with the aim of diminishing the visibility of LGBTQ+ people. It is still within recent history that people were fighting just to be seen and it leads me to think about visibility now, particularly within the music industry.
This month also saw the Grammys and since this event my social media has been loaded with discussions about Sam Smith and Kim Petras. Some of these are positive celebrations of award winners and music, but others carry such hatred that they are difficult to read. Since coming out as non-binary, Sam Smith has become the focus of the media; their gender almost overtaking the fact that they released a UK number one album in January. Much of the coverage that you see online is around their wardrobe, presentation and pronouns. Smith is certainly not the first artist to find that their music is not always the focus of the press. Freddie Mercury often found his sexuality to be questioned in many interviews throughout the eighties but chose not to respond, so that the image of Queen would not be impacted. In 1999, my favourite boyband member Stephen Gately became front page news when he was pressured into coming out as gay after hearing that it may be leaked. At this time there was still a huge fear that being visible as a gay man in a band would not only ruin your career, but the image of those around you too.
For Sam Smith and Kim Petras, the focus seems to land on their gender. Kim Petras made history as the first openly trans woman to win a Grammy, although before her came Wendy Carlos, who won three Grammys in 1969 and composed the soundtracks to huge movies such as The Shining, Clockwork Orange and Tron. Carlos did not speak about her transness until 1979, as she feared that she would not be taken seriously in the industry if people knew. She lived in secret for years, afraid that her gender would overshadow her great talent. So how have things changed? Kim Petras received applause as she announced she was the first trans woman to take that award, opening doors for others, yet the hatred received in comments and reactions is still horrific.
Both Petras and Smith are continually, and often purposefully, mis-gendered and many people seem to consider them controversial merely by existing. This has been seen throughout the decades, that simply by living authentically you become viewed as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘dangerous’. While now in many ways equality has moved forward, we still see microaggressions in the way that LGBTQ+ artists are treated and spoken about in the press. Whether people are described as having ‘hedonistic’ lifestyles or are being forced to answer wholly personal or inappropriate questions about themselves or their bodies. You may notice language and narrative differences in the way people talk about Sam Smith and Harry Styles, who has shifted the focus of gender and sexuality more into fashion. Though Styles has certainly not avoided the grilling from media himself.
Sam Smith has spoken so openly recently about the bullying received in their line of work, so what is it like for LGBTQ+ people in the industry right now? For many the biggest fear is not just the responses that you receive from being visible, but also of becoming a ‘niche’ artist purely based on your gender or sexuality. By living authentically, you can risk your music coming second to other aspects of yourself. Some describe fearing being only seen as a ‘trans artist’, or music being put in the same category as other people who identify the same way with their sexuality, even though they sound completely different. Much as years ago we had the ‘female fronted’ genre. We also wander into the territory here of whether all people want to be put under the same LGBTQ+ umbrella, but that is a whole other piece.
I do not want to make this all doom and gloom, while there is much still to learn, we are seeing huge progression. In country music artists such as Orville Peck are playing with ideas of cowboy masculinity and Lil Nas X topped the charts with his own version of the genre, along with bringing the first gay male kiss to the BET stage. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! speaks openly of her gender dysphoria and transitioning against the backdrop of the punk rock scene, and artists like Hayley Kiyoko have forged to create a space for women who love women, moving it away from the fetishisation that it once received in the mainstream pop world. When talking about visibility I often come up against the question around why it is needed and the odd remark that straight people do not shout about pride.
The LGBTQ+ communities have had to fight to be seen, to be heard and to hold the same spaces in a heteronormative world. This was why it was so wonderful for Sam Smith to step back and give Kim Petras the space and voice at the Grammys. This is not about being seen as an individual or the limelight, but about the people sat at home who may still be too scared to live openly as themselves. For those who feel that the world became closed to them or harder in some way once they realised who they are. Music is an incredible world with a healing power, it brings people together and gives a voice to those who cannot access it for themselves. This is exactly the place where visibility is needed, and thanks must go to all those mentioned in this article and many more artists who touch the lives of those who need it.
Katie Evans (GSRD Therapist)